FACT CHECK: Presidential debate missteps

Associated Press Modified: October 4, 2012 at 10:30 am •  Published: October 4, 2012
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WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney spun one-sided stories in their first presidential debate, not necessarily bogus, but not the whole truth.

They made some flat-out flubs, too. The rise in health insurance premiums has not been the slowest in 50 years, as Obama stated. Far from it. And there are not 23 million unemployed, as Romney asserted.

Here's a look at some of their claims and how they stack up with the facts:

OBAMA: "I've proposed a specific $4 trillion deficit reduction plan. ... The way we do it is $2.50 for every cut, we ask for $1 in additional revenue."

THE FACTS: In promising $4 trillion, Obama is already banking more than $2 trillion from legislation enacted along with Republicans last year that cut agency operating budgets and capped them for 10 years. He also claims more than $800 billion in war savings that would occur anyway. And he uses creative bookkeeping to hide spending on Medicare reimbursements to doctors. Take those "cuts" away and Obama's $2.50/$1 ratio of spending cuts to tax increases shifts significantly more in the direction of tax increases.

Obama's February budget offered proposals that would cut deficits over the coming decade by $2 trillion instead of $4 trillion. Of that deficit reduction, tax increases accounted for $1.6 trillion. He promises relatively small spending cuts of $597 billion from big federal benefit programs like Medicare and Medicaid. He also proposed higher spending on infrastructure projects.

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ROMNEY: Obama's health care plan "puts in place an unelected board that's going to tell people ultimately what kind of treatments they can have. I don't like that idea."

THE FACTS: Romney is referring to the Independent Payment Advisory Board, a panel of experts that would have the power to force Medicare cuts if costs rise beyond certain levels and Congress fails to act. But Obama's health care law explicitly prohibits the board from rationing care, shifting costs to retirees, restricting benefits or raising the Medicare eligibility age. So the board doesn't have the power to dictate to doctors what treatments they can prescribe.

Romney seems to be resurrecting the assertion that Obama's law would lead to rationing, made famous by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's widely debunked allegation that it would create "death panels."

The board has yet to be named, and its members would ultimately have to be confirmed by the Senate. Health care inflation has been modest in the last few years, so cuts would be unlikely for most of the rest of this decade.

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OBAMA: "Over the last two years, health care premiums have gone up — it's true — but they've gone up slower than any time in the last 50 years. So we're already beginning to see progress. In the meantime, folks out there with insurance, you're already getting a rebate."

THE FACTS: Not so, concerning premiums. Obama is mixing overall health care spending, which has been growing at historically low levels, and health insurance premiums, which have continued to rise faster than wages and overall economic growth. Premiums for job-based family coverage have risen by nearly $2,400 since 2009 when Obama took office, according to the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation. In 2011, premiums jumped by 9 percent. This year's 4 percent increase was more manageable, but the price tag for family coverage stands at $15,745, with employees paying more than $4,300 of that.

When it comes to insurance rebates under Obama's health care law, less than 10 percent of people with private health insurance are benefiting.

More than 160 million Americans under 65 have private insurance through their jobs and by buying their own policies. According to the administration, about 13 million people will benefit from rebates. And nearly two-thirds of that number will only be entitled to a share of it, since they are covered under job-based plans where their employer pays most of the premium and will get most of the rebate.

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ROMNEY on the failure of Obama's economic policy: "And the proof of that is 23 million people out of work. The proof of that is 1 out of 6 people in poverty. The proof of that is we've gone from 32 million on food stamps to 47 million on food stamps. The proof of that is that 50 percent of college graduates this year can't find work."

THE FACTS: The number of unemployed is 12.5 million, not 23 million. Romney was also counting 8 million people who are working part time but would like a full-time job and 2.6 million who have stopped looking for work, either because they are discouraged or because they are going back to school or for other reasons.

He got the figure closer to right earlier in the debate, leaving out only the part-timers when he said the U.S. has "23 million people out of work or stopped looking for work." But he was wrong in asserting that Obama came into office "facing 23 million people out of work." At the start of Obama's presidency, 12 million were out of work.

His claim that half of college graduates can't find work now also was problematic. A Northeastern University analysis for The Associated Press found that a one-fourth of recent graduates were probably unemployed and another quarter were underemployed, which means working in jobs that didn't make full use of their skills or experience.

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OBAMA: It's important "that we take some of the money that we're saving as we wind down two wars to rebuild America."

THE FACTS: This oft-repeated claim is based on a fiscal fiction. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were paid for mostly with borrowed money, so stopping them doesn't create a new pool of available cash that can be used for something else, like rebuilding America. It just slows down the government's borrowing.

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ROMNEY: "At the same time, gasoline prices have doubled under the president. Electric rates are up."

THE FACTS: He's right that the average price has doubled, and a little more, since Obama was sworn in. But presidents have almost no influence on gasoline prices, and certainly not in the near term. Gasoline prices are set on financial exchanges around the world and are based on a host of factors, most importantly the price of crude oil used to make gasoline, the amount of finished gasoline ready to be shipped and the capacity of refiners to make enough to meet market demand.

Retail electricity prices have risen since Obama took office — barely. They've grown by an average of less than 1 percent per year, less than the rate of inflation and slower than the historical growth in electricity prices. The unexpectedly modest rise in electricity prices is because of the plummeting cost of natural gas, which is used to generate electricity.

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